Flu season having minor impact in San Juan County, but activity is high across New Mexico

Hospital official says only a few cases have turned up so far this year

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The CDC says New Mexico is one of 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, where flu activity is rated at high or worse.
  • San Juan Regional Medical Center's Penny Hill said the hospital has seen only a few flu patients this year.
  • The hospital did not record a single influenza case last season.

FARMINGTON — So far, so good is the general assessment in regard to how San Juan County has been impacted by the influenza virus this season.

The weekly influenza summary map for Jan. 3 produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows New Mexico to be one of 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, to be categorized as a location where the flu activity level is rated at high or worse.

Despite that fact, San Juan County largely appears to have evaded the virus again this season.

Penny Hill, the infection prevention and employee health manager at the San Juan Regional Medical Center, said the facility has seen only a few patients test positive for the flu through the hospital lab, or who were seen in the emergency department or admitted so far this season.

But, she cautioned, there is generally an uptick in cases after the holiday travel season.

Previously:Could seasonal flu make a comeback this year? Hospital official touts vaccinations

San Juan Regional Medical Center personnel administer vaccines during the hospital's annual drive-thru community flu clinic on Oct. 23, 2021, in Farmington.

That was not the case last year, when the COVID-19 lockdown was in full force, and so many people were practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and practicing conscientious personal hygiene. Hill told The Daily Times in September the hospital did not record a single case positive flu case last season, a development she characterized as remarkable.

San Juan County hasn't been quite so lucky this season, according to Hill, but the flu's local impact appears to have been limited, at least so far. Hill is still worried about a post-holiday surge in numbers, but she is hopeful that many of the habits folks adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to pay dividends.

"We do hope that the use of masks and handwashing may still blunt the transmission of flu as it did last year," she wrote in an email to The Daily Times.

As it traditionally does, the hospital held two free drive-thru community flu shot clinics in the fall. Hill said turnout for those clinics was lower than normal, and she and other hospital officials worried that would lead to a sharp increase in the number of influenza patients at the same time the hospital has been battling a surge in COVID-19 patients.

Fortunately, she said, no such escalation in cases has materialized.

Turnout for the San Juan Regional Medical Center's two drive-thru community flu shot clinics in the fall was lower than normal, but that has not resulted in a surge in cases this season, a hospital official says.

Nor has the hospital seen any coinfections, which is the term health officials use to describe patients who have contracted COVID-19 and influenza at the same time. But Hill declined to rule out that possibility, adding, "that is a distinct possibility."

Flu season historically extends into spring, and Hill said there is still plenty of benefit to getting vaccinated for those who have not done so.

"With all of the focus on COVID right now, I think we forget just how deadly the flu virus can be," she wrote in her email. "It's easily preventable with an annual flu vaccine, good hand washing and wearing your masks in public at this time."

The effectiveness of flu vaccines can vary each year, but Hill said indications are that this season's vaccine is a relatively good match for the flu strains that are circulating.

"According to the CDC, there may be small changes to the influenza (viruses) that occur each year, but they do expect that the 'current flu vaccine will provide good protection for the majority of the flu viruses that are likely to circulate this season,'" she wrote.

New Mexico, Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are the locations where flu activity is reported as being at its highest, according to the CDC summary.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.